BioMed Research International

BioMed Research International / 2015 / Article

Review Article | Open Access

Volume 2015 |Article ID 392674 |

Adriana Andrade Carvalho, Luciana Nalone Andrade, Élida Batista Vieira de Sousa, Damião Pergentino de Sousa, "Antitumor Phenylpropanoids Found in Essential Oils", BioMed Research International, vol. 2015, Article ID 392674, 21 pages, 2015.

Antitumor Phenylpropanoids Found in Essential Oils

Academic Editor: Gagan Deep
Received05 Jul 2014
Accepted12 Oct 2014
Published15 Jan 2015


The search for new bioactive substances with anticancer activity and the understanding of their mechanisms of action are high-priorities in the research effort toward more effective treatments for cancer. The phenylpropanoids are natural products found in many aromatic and medicinal plants, food, and essential oils. They exhibit various pharmacological activities and have applications in the pharmaceutical industry. In this review, the anticancer potential of 17 phenylpropanoids and derivatives from essential oils is discussed. Chemical structures, experimental report, and mechanisms of action of bioactive substances are presented.

1. Introduction

Cancer is a global health concern that causes mortality in both children and adults. More than 100 distinct types and subtypes of cancer can be found within specific organs [1]. Despite the success of several cancer therapies, an ideal anticancer drug has not been discovered, and numerous side effects limit treatment. However, research into new drugs has revealed a variety of new chemical structures and potent biological activities that are of interest in the context of cancer treatment.

Essential oils are natural products that are a mixture of volatile lipophilic substances. The chemical composition of essential oils includes monoterpenes, sesquiterpenes, and phenylpropanoids, which are usually oxidized in an aliphatic chain or aromatic ring. Several studies have shown that this chemical class has several biological activities, including analgesic, anticonvulsant, and anti-inflammatory effects [24]. Antitumor activity has been reported for essential oils against several tumor cell lines [57], and these oils contain a high percentage of phenylpropanoids, which are believed to contribute to their pharmacological activity [8, 9].

This paper presents a literature review of phenylpropanoids from essential oils with respect to antitumor activity, with chemical structures and names of bioactive compounds provided. The phenylpropanoids presented in this review were selected on the basis of effects shown in specific experimental models for evaluation of antitumor activity and/or by complementary studies aimed at elucidating mechanisms of action (Table 1). The selection of essential oil constituents in the database was related to various terms, including essential oils and phenylpropanoids, as well as names of representative compounds of chemical groups, and refined with respect to antitumor activity, cytotoxic activity, and cytotoxicity. The search was performed using scientific literature databases and Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS) in November 2013.

CompoundExperimental protocolAntitumoral activity and/or mechanismAnimal/cell line testedReference

Anaphylaxis modelApoptotic manifestations via phospho-ser 15-p53 into mitochondriaMast cells[11]
Skin carcinogenesis modelInhibition of the proliferation associated genes c-Myc and H-ras and antiapoptotic gene Bcl2 along with upregulation of proapoptotic genes Bax, p53, and active caspase-3Mice[12]
Trypan-blue assaysCytotoxic activityB16-F10, Sbcl2, WM3211, WM98-1 and WM1205Lu, PC-3, human gingival fibroblasts, oral mucosal, neutrophils—male guinea pig, rat hepatocytes cells[14, 15, 23, 32, 33, 48, 49]
Melanoma cell proliferationDeregulation of the E2F family of transcription factors, transcriptional activity of E2F1Sbcl2, WM3211, WM98-1, and WM1205Lu cells[15]
Flow cytometry analysisCytotoxic activityP-815, K-562, CEM, and MCF-7 cells[13]
VL irradiation timeAntioxidative reactivityHSG, HSC-2, and HL-60 cells[17]
MTT assayCytotoxic activityB16-F10, P-815, K-562, CEM, MCF-7, MCF-7 gem, HeLa, DU-145, KB, HSG, human dental pulp, murine peritoneal macrophages HL-60, HepG-2, B16, cells[13, 1922, 2529, 38, 45, 46, 48]
DPPH assayAntioxidative activityCaco-2 cells and VH10 fibroblasts[18]
Flow cytometer analysisEnhanced the accumulation of cells in the S and G2/M phase which may be unable to divideHeLa cells
DAPI stainingIncrease in the number of apoptotic cells
In vitro hemolytic activityHemolytic activityHuman erythrocytes[19]
Caspase-3 colorimetric assayInduce caspase 3-mediated apoptosis
RT-PCRAnticancer activities via apoptosis induction and anti-inflammatory downregulation of Bcl-2, COX-2, and IL-1β
RT-PCRDownregulated the expression of Bcl-2, COX-2, and IL-βHeLa cells[20]
Flow cytometer analysisIncreased population of cells G2/M phase by 4.5-fold PC-3 cells [24]
Western blot and RT-PCR analysisReduced expression of antiapoptotic protein Bcl-2 and enhanced expression of proapoptotic protein Bax
DPPH radical-scavenging activityFormation of dimersHSG cells[25]
ELISAReduced the nicotine-induced ROS, NO generation, and iNOSII expressionMurine peritoneal macrophages[27]
Spectrophotometric analysisIncrease in LDH releaseDU-145 and KB cells[28]
ESR analysisActivity of the production of phenoxyl radicals with most efficiently scavenged reactive oxygen HSG cells [29]
Laser cytometry analysisProduction of ROS induced by VL-irradiated is significantly affected by pH
Antioxidants productionProduced antioxidants in alkaline solutionsHuman salivary gland and oral squamous cells[30]
DPPH assayApoptosis-inducing effectHGF and HSG cells[31]
TBA analysis lipid oxidationDepleted intracellular glutathione; protect cells from the genetic attack of reactive oxygen species via inhibition of xanthine oxidase activity and lipid peroxidation Oral mucosal fibroblasts [32]
ATP assayDecreased cellular ATP level in a concentration- and time-dependent manner
NR assayIntracellular glutathione levelsHFF and HepG2 cells[33]
Dichlorofluorescein assayReduction in the intracellular level of GSHHSG cells[34]
CAs assayInduced a dose-dependent increase of aberrant cellsV79 cells [41]
Topo II activity assayInhibition of topoisomerase II
Croton oil induced skin carcinogenesisInhibition of the proliferation associated genes c-Myc and H-ras and antiapoptotic gene Bcl2 along with upregulation of proapoptotic genes Bax, p53, and active caspase-3Swiss mice[36]
DMBA/TPA-induced carcinogenesis in murine skinDeclined of hyperplasia, epidermal ODC activity, and protein expression of iNOS, COX-2, and secretion of proinflammatory cytokines Swiss mice [42]
TUNEL assayUpregulation of p53 expression with a concomitant increase in p21WAF1 levels in epidermal cells indicating induction of damage to the DNA
Flow cytometric analysiscDNA array analysis showed that eugenol caused deregulation of the E2F family of transcription factorsWM1205Lu cells [24]
TUNEL assayInduces apoptosis in melanoma tumorsWM1205Lu cells
DPPH assayAntioxidative propertiesHL-60 and HepG-2 cells[48]
Sulforhodamine B assayCytotoxic activitySK-OV-3, XF-498, and HCT-15 cells[76]
Murine Ehrlich ascites and solid carcinoma modelsInhibit the growth of Ehrlich ascitesBALB/c mice[44]
DPPH assayAntioxidation activityHepG2 cells[22]
Western blot analysisDecreased the protein expression of BSP in a concentration-dependent mannerHuman dental pulp cells[35]
DPPH assayAntioxidant effectRaw 264.7 cells[43]
VL irradiation/MTT assayGeneration of eugenol radicalsHSG and HGF cells [36]
Laser cytometerGeneration of ROS
ESR analysisProduced phenoxyl radicalsHSG and HGF cells[37]
Superoxide generation/spectrophotometerStimulation the production of superoxide ()Neutrophils—male guinea pig[40]

DPPH assayAntioxidative propertiesHL-60 and HepG-2 cells[48]
UDS assayCytotoxicity and genotoxicity effectsB6C3F1 mouse hepatocytes [47]
F-344 rat hepatocytes
L-Lactate assayCytotoxic effectB6C3F1 mouse hepatocytes
F-344 rat hepatocytes
MTT assay
DPPH assay
Cytotoxic activity
Antioxidative properties
HL-60, HepG-2, WM266-4, SK-Mel-28, LCP-Mel, LCM-Mel, PNP-Mel, CN-MelA, and GR-Mel cells[16, 48]
WST assay
SRB assay
Cytotoxic and genotoxic propertiesV79 cells[49]
Corn oil gavageCarcinogenic activity is based on increased incidences of hepatocellular adenoma, hepatocellular carcinoma, and hepatocellular adenoma or carcinoma (combined)F344/N rats and B6C3F1 mice[50]
Trypan-blue exclusion assayCytotoxic activityRat hepatocytes[55]

MTT assay

Cytotoxic activity
HSG cells [29]
DPPH radical-scavenging activityCormation of dimers
Dichlorofluorescein assay


Reduction in the intracellular level of GSH



MTT assayInhibition of cell proliferationWM266-4, SK-Mel-28, LCP-Mel, LCM-Mel, PNP-Mel, CN-MelA, and GR-Mel cells[16]

WST assay
SRB assay
Cytotoxic and genotoxic propertiesV79 cells[49]

L-Lactate assayCytotoxic effectB6C3F1 mouse hepatocytes [47]
F-344 rat hepatocytes
UDS assayCytotoxicity and genotoxicity effectsB6C3F1 mouse hepatocytes
F-344 rat hepatocytes
Trypan-blue exclusion assayPotential cytotoxic effectsRat hepatocytes and SCC-4 cells[47, 51, 54]
Flow cytometric assayInduction of apoptosis of cells by involvement of mitochondria- and caspase-dependent signal pathway SCC-4 cells [51]
Western blotting analysisUpregulation of the protein expression of Bax and Bid and downregulation of the protein levels of Bcl-2 (upregulation of the ratio of Bax/Bcl-2), resulting in cytochrome c release, promoted Apaf-1 level, and sequential activation of caspase-9 and caspase-3 in a time-dependent manner
Real-time PCRmRNA expressions of caspases 3, 8, and 9
MTT assayCytotoxic effect Human BMFs [52]
Western blot analysisActivate NF-κB expression that may be involved in the pathogenesis of OSF and mediated by ERK activation and COX-2 signal transduction pathway
Fura-2 as a probe assayInduced a Ca2+ increase by causing Ca2+ release from the endoplasmic reticulum in a phospholipase C- and protein kinase C-independent fashion and by inducing Ca2+ influxPC3 cells[53]
Comet assay/(DAPI) stainingInduced apoptosis (chromatin condensation) and DNA damageHL-60 cells [51]
Flow cytometric analysisIncreased the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and Ca2+ and reduced the mitochondrial membrane potential
Western blotting analysis/confocal laser microscopyPromoted the expression of glucose-regulated protein 78 (GRP78), growth arrest- and DNA damage-inducible gene 153 (GADD153), and activating transcription factor 6α (ATF-6α)
Flow cytometric analysisPromoted the levels of CD11b and Mac-3 that might be the reason for promoting the activity of phagocytosis;
reduced the cell population such as CD3 and CD19 cells
NK cells[58]
Ames testMutagenicity activitySalmonella TA 98[59]

MTT assay

Produced toxicity in cells in a dose- and time-dependent manner

HepG2 cells
FVB mice
Comet assaySignificant dose-dependent increase in the degree of DNA (strand breaks)
Cytotoxic or genotoxic effect in vivo—i.p./Comet assayIncrease in mean Comet tail moment in peripheral blood leukocytes and in the frequency of micronucleated reticulocytesHepG2 cells
FVB mice
TUNEL assayActivity of caspases 3, 8, and 9A549 cells[58]

Western blot assayCleavages of PARP, accompanied by an accumulation of cytochrome c and by the activation of caspase-3SK-N-SH cells[60]



Induction of GST and QR


Induction of GST and QR in mouse livers


Four strains of mouse: A/JOlaHsd, C57BL/6NHsd, BALB/cAnNHsd, and CBA/JCrHsd

Trypan-blue exclusion assay


Cytotoxic activity


Rat hepatocytes



Trypan-blue assayCytotoxic activityHeLa, rat hepatocytes cell[21, 23, 55, 64]
MTT assayCytotoxic activityHT-1080, ML1-a cells[63]
Boyden-chamber assayReduced 40 and 85%
of cells to invade into Matrigel
HT-1080 cells [62]
Gelatin zymography and RT-PCR analysesInhibitory effect of MMP-2 and MMP-9 and downregulate the expression of matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) 2 and 9 and upregulate the gene expression of tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinase- (TIMP-) 1
Expression of MMPs, TIMPs, and uPA assaysDecreased mRNA expression of urokinase plasminogen activator (uPA)
Western blot analysisSuppressed the phosphorylation of AKT, extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK), p38, and nuclear transcription factor kappa B (NF-κB)
Fluorometric assayIncreases in the levels of ADP and AMPRat hepatocytes [62]
CCK-8 assayEstrogenic effect based on the concentrations of the hydroxylated intermediate, 4OHPBMCF-7 cells
Western blot analysisSuppressed TNF-induced activation of the transcription factor AP-1, c-jun N-terminal kinase, and MAPK-kinaseML1-a cells[63]
Colorimetric e fluorometric assaysReduced the levels of nucleic acids and MDA, and increased NP-SH concentrationsEAT cells in the paw of Swiss mice[65]


Ames test

Mutagenic for Salmonella tester strains

Salmonella typhimurium strains TA1535, TA100, and TA98
Induction of hepatic tumorsCarcinogenic in the induction of hepatomasB6C3F1 mice[67]
Induction of skin papillomas

Carcinogenic in the induction of skin papillomas

CD-1 mice


SRB assayCytotoxic activityA549, SK-OV-3, SK-MEL-2, and HCT15 cells[70]

Ames test

Mutagenic for Salmonella tester strains

Salmonella typhimurium strains TA1535, TA100, and TA98
Induction of hepatic tumorsCarcinogenic in the induction of hepatomasB6C3F1 mice[67]
Induction of skin papillomas

Carcinogenic in the induction of skin papillomas

CD-1 mice

MTT assayCytotoxic activityA375, HCT 116, MCF-7, P388, L-1210, 3LL, SNU-C5, HL-60, U-937, HCT 116, L1210 mouse, and Syrian hamster embryo cells[71, 77, 78, 80, 84, 89]
TRPA1 and TRPM8 gene expressionReduce the proliferation of melanoma cells; this effect is independent of an activation of TRPA1 channelsA375, G361, SK-Mel-19, SK-Mel-23, and SK-Mel-28 cells[77]
Sulforhodamine B assayCytotoxic activityHeLa, A549, SK-OV-3, SK-MEL-2, XF-498, and HCT-15 cells [76]
Ames testNot mutagenicStrains (TA 98, TA 100, TA 1535, and TA 1537) of Salmonella typhimurium
DTNB assayTrxR inactivationRecombinant rat TrxR [78]
Western blot analysisInduced an adaptive antioxidant response through Nrf2-mediated upregulation of phase II enzymes, including TrxR inductionHCT 116 cells
XTT assayInhibitory effects on the growth of cells Hep G2 cells [80]
Western blot analysisIncrease in the CD95 (APO-1/CD95) protein expression in Hep G2 cells
Inhibited the expression of Bax, p53, and CD95, as well as the cleavage of PARP. This pretreatment also prevented the downregulation of Bcl-XL in cells
Trypan-blue assayInhibited the proliferation of cellsPLC/PRF/5 cells[81]
Flow cytometer analysisActivation of proapoptotic
Bcl-2 family (Bax and Bid) proteins and MAPK pathway
PLC/PRF/5 cells [83]
Western immunoblot analysisPrevented the phosphorylation of JNK and p38 proteins
DAPI/Fluorometric methodInduced apoptosis in cells P388, L-1210, 3LL, SNU-C5, HL-60, U-937, and HepG2 cells [71]
Flow cytometry analysisInduces the ROS-mediated mitochondrial permeability transition and resultant cytochrome c release
cis-DDP-inducedPotentiated the inactivating effect of cis-DDP in all phases of the cell cycleNHIK 3025 cells[82]
NRU assayInduced the fragmentation of nuclei (Plate 2), which
is typical for condensed apoptotic phenotype
Hep-2 cells [87]
Genotoxicity assays—DNA repair testInvolve DNA damage as one of the factors involved in the mammalian cytotoxicity
LDH-cytotoxicity assayPotent inhibitory effect against human hepatoma cell growth HepG2 and Hep3B cells [88]
Western blot analysisJAK2-STAT3/STAT5 pathway may be important targets
Decreased the protein levels of cyclin D1 and proliferative cell nuclear antigen (PCNA) but increased the protein levels of p27Kip1 and p21Waf1/Cip1
Flow cytometry analysisInducing apoptosis and synergizing the cytotoxicity of CIK cellsK562 cells[92]
Spectral analysisInduced an adaptive antioxidant response through Nrf2-mediated upregulation of phase II enzymes, including TrxR inductionS180 in mice[89]

MTT assayCytotoxic activityNIH/3T3 cells[90]
Lymphoproliferation—Con A, LPS, or PMA plus ionomycinInhibit the lymphoproliferation and induce a T-cell differentiation from CD4CD8 double positive cells to CD4 or CD8 single positive cellsMice splenocytes [74]
Flow cytometry analysisCapability to block the cell growth and stimulate a differentiation to mature cell
IgM-secreting B cells to SRBCDecreased level of IgM to be due to the lower level of B-cell proliferationBalb/c mice

ELISAInhibits proliferation and DNA synthesisCaco-2 cells [79]
RadioimmunoassayDecreased intracellular cAMP levels
Flow cytometry analysisInfluence on the tumor cell cycle: G2-M period shortened, cell cycle lengthened, and cell proliferation inhibitedU14 cells[92]
cis-DDP-inducedPotentiated the inactivating effect of cis-DDP in all phases of the cell cycleNHIK 3025 cells[82]
Trypan-blue assayAnticancer activityHL-60, A549, PC3, Du145, LN-CaP, A172, U251, SKMEL28, and A375 cells[93, 94]
Flow cytometry analysisInhibition and induced-differentiation on human osteogenic sarcoma cellsHuman osteogenic sarcoma cells[95]
MTT assayCytotoxic activityHepG2 cells [97]
SpectrophotometerHigher antioxidant capacity
NRU assayCytotoxic activityMac Coy cells[96]
MTT assayAntiviral activityEHV-1[98]

Trypan-blue assay

Cytotoxic activity
Rat hepatocytes [54]
Waters chromatograph

Decrease in cell viability, accompanied by losses of ATP, GSH;
increase in GSSG, ROS, and MDA levels

Indirect immunofluorescent method/EBV activation

Inhibiting the generation of anions during tumor promotion

Raji cells
Trypan-blue exclusion assayCytotoxic activityRPMI8226, U266, and IM-9 cells [99]
Flow cytometryInduced caspases 3, 9, and 8 activitiesRPMI8226 cells
Western blot analysisTNF-α-induced apoptosis
ELISADownregulation of NF-κB activity
TNF-α-induced apoptosis
In vivo assay
Anticancer effects with no toxic effects
NOD/SCID mouse

2. Phenylpropanoids

2.1. Eugenol

Eugenol is the active component of essential oil isolated from clove (Syzygium aromaticum) and has antimutagenic, antigenotoxic, and anti-inflammatory properties [10]. Eugenol also has cytotoxic activity. This drugs can induce cell death in several tumor and cell types: mast cells [1113], breast adenocarcinoma [13], melanoma cells [1416], leukemia [14, 17], colon carcinoma [18], cervical carcinoma [1923], prostate cancer [24], submandibular gland adenocarcinoma [25], human dental pulp [26], murine peritoneal macrophages [27], androgen-insensitive prostate cancer, oral squamous carcinoma [17, 28], human submandibular gland carcinoma [29, 30], salivary gland [30], gingival fibroblasts [3133], hepatoma [34], human dental pulp cells [35], human gingival fibroblasts, and epidermoid carcinoma cells derived from human submandibular gland [36, 37]. Furthermore, eugenol is neither carcinogenic nor mutagenic and is not cytotoxic in lymphocytes [14]. Isoeugenol was found to be more toxic than eugenol when the cytotoxicity of isoeugenol, bis-eugenol, and eugenol was tested in HSG (human submandibular gland adenocarcinoma) cell lines [25]. In this way, Atsumi and collaborators [37] compared the cytotoxicity of dehydrodiisoeugenol, alpha-di-isoeugenol, isoeugenol, eugenol, and bis-eugenol in a gland tumor cell line (HSG) and normal human gingival fibroblasts (HGF). Both the cytotoxic activity and the DNA synthesis inhibitory activity of these compounds against the salivary gland tumor cell line (HSG) and normal human gingival fibroblasts (HGF) were greatest in dehydrodiisoeugenol and alpha-di-isoeugenol, followed by isoeugenol, which showed greater activity than eugenol [37].

Synergistic effects have been demonstrated for eugenol with gemcitabine and fluorouracil, which potentiated its cytotoxic effect on HeLa cells (human cervical carcinoma) [19, 20, 38]. Eugenol also significantly decreased expression of Bcl-2, COX2, and IL-1b in the HeLa cell line [20]. Atsumi and collaborators [39] demonstrated that the effects of eugenol on ROS production were biphasic, with production enhanced at lower eugenol concentrations (5–10 μM) and inhibited at higher concentrations (500 μM). Suzuki and collaborators [40] demonstrated that eugenol stimulated production of superoxide () free radicals in guinea pig neutrophils without lag time.

Eugenol halts cells in the replication phase, suggesting that cells stop to repair DNA damage and either reenter the cell cycle or, in cases of massive DNA damage, activate apoptosis. Melanoma cells treated with eugenol remain in the S phase and undergo apoptosis, and eugenol treatment upregulates numerous enzymes involved in the base excision repair pathway, including E2F family members [15].

In another study, eugenol at higher doses induced chromosomal aberrations, with significant increases (3.5%) in aberrant cells at a concentration of 2500 μM in V79 cells (Chinese hamster lung fibroblast). Eugenol was also assayed for genotoxic activity via inhibition of topoisomerase II and showed dose-dependent inhibition [41].

The chemopreventive potential of eugenol was also studied [10]. Using in vivo methods, Pal and collaborators [10] showed that eugenol inhibits skin carcinogenesis induced by dimethylbenz[a]anthracene (DMBA) croton oil in mice, probably due to inhibition of proliferation-associated genes (c-Myc and H-ras) and antiapoptotic gene Bcl2, along with upregulation of proapoptotic genes Bax, p53, and active caspase-3 [10]. Kaur and collaborators [42] studied the chemopreventive effect of eugenol in DMBA/TPA-induced carcinogenesis in murine skin. They showed that topical application of eugenol resulted in a marked decline in hyperplasia, epidermal ODC activity, protein expression of iNOS and COX-2, and secretion of proinflammatory cytokines, all of which are classical markers of inflammation and tumor promotion [42]. In addition, eugenol has been shown to produce antioxidant effects via free radical scavenging activity and reduction of ROS [22, 36, 43]. Atsumi and collaborators [36] showed that visible-light irradiation and elevation of the pH of the eugenol-containing medium resulted in significantly lower cell survival in HSG cultures in comparison with eugenol alone.

In vivo murine assays have also demonstrated the antitumor potential of eugenol. Treatment of female B6D2F1 mice bearing B16 melanoma allografts with 125 mg/kg of eugenol resulted in a small, but highly significant (), 2.4-day tumor growth delay. Furthermore, the treated animals had no fatalities that were attributed to metastasis or tumor invasion, which is indicative of the ability of eugenol to suppress melanoma metastasis [15]. Jaganathan and collaborators [44] also demonstrated the antitumor potential of eugenol using an in vivo assay, in which a dose of 100 mg/kg caused 24.35% tumor growth inhibition and inhibited the growth of Ehrlich ascites by 28.88%. In contrast, Tangke Arung and collaborators [45] showed that 100 μg/mL eugenol inhibited melanin formation by more than 42% in the B16 melanoma cell line in vitro, with cytotoxicity in 5% of cells. At a higher concentration of 200 μg/mL 23% cytotoxicity was observed, which demonstrated that eugenol could be useful as a skin-whitening agent for the treatment of hyperpigmentation [45].

Furthermore, it has been demonstrated that eugenol, when mixed with zinc oxide, has a restorative effect on dental erosion and demineralization [46]. Using human dental pulp cells (D824) it was observed that eugenol had a cytotoxic effect, with reduction of cell growth and inhibition of colony-forming cell [35]. D824 cells have the potential for metabolic activation, because they are a mixed-cell population composed of many types of cells, and thus the cytotoxic activity of eugenol could be attributable to eugenol metabolites. However, Marya and collaborators [46] showed a hemolytic effect of eugenol, which could be a possible side effect of this drug. In addition, Anpo and collaborators [35] showed that eugenol reduced growth and survival of human dental pulp cells, as well as collagen synthesis and bone sialoprotein (BSP) expression, which play a critical role in physiological and reparative dentinogenesis. Eugenol is a phenylpropanoid with promising antitumor drug profile. Further studies to elucidate the mechanisms that mediate the adverse effects of eugenol are necessary.

2.2. Methyleugenol, Isoeugenol, Methylisoeugenol, and 1′-Hydroxymethyleugenol

Methyleugenol is a substituted alkenylbenzene found in a variety of foods and essential oils. It is structurally similar to eugenol and found in many plant species [47]. Methyleugenol produced cytotoxic effects in rat and mouse hepatocytes [47, 48] and leukemia [48]. Methyleugenol also produced genotoxicity in mice [47] and in cultured cells [49] and caused neoplastic lesions in the livers of Fischer 344 rats and B6C3F1 mice [47].

Isoeugenol is a phenylpropanoid produced by plants. As a flavoring agent, isoeugenol is added to nonalcoholic drinks, baked foods, and chewing gums. In male F344/N rats, isoeugenol showed carcinogenic effects, causing increased incidence of rarely occurring thymoma and mammary gland carcinoma. There was no evidence of carcinogenic activity due to isoeugenol in female F344/N rats. However, there was clear evidence of carcinogenic activity due to isoeugenol in male B6C3F1 mice, including increased incidence of hepatocellular adenoma, hepatocellular carcinoma, and hepatocellular adenoma with carcinoma. Carcinogenic activity due to isoeugenol in female B6C3F1 mice was observed in the form of increased incidence of histiocytic sarcoma. Exposure to isoeugenol resulted in nonneoplastic lesions of the nose in male and female rats, of the kidney in female mice, and of the nose, forestomach, and glandular stomach in mice of both sexes [50]. However, methyleugenol is minimally cytotoxic for hepatocytes and leukemia cells compared to eugenol [48, 49]. The structural similarity of these substances with eugenol stimulates advances in pharmacological studies to explore their therapeutic potential in cancer treatment.

2.3. Safrole, Safrole-2′,3′-oxide, and Myristicin

Safrole is an important food-borne phytotoxin found in many natural products, such as oil of sassafras, anise, basil, nutmeg, and pepper. Safrole is cytotoxic against human tongue squamous carcinoma [51], primary human buccal mucosal fibroblasts [52], prostate cancer [53], rat hepatocytes [54], and leukemia [51] and shows genotoxic activity [55, 56].

Safrole induced apoptosis in human tongue squamous carcinoma SCC-4 cells by mitochondria- and caspase-dependent signaling pathways. Safrole-induced apoptosis was accompanied by upregulation of Bax and Bid and downregulation of Bcl-2, which increased the ratio of Bax/Bcl-2, resulting in cytochrome c release, increased Apaf-1 levels, and sequential activation of caspase-9 and caspase-3 in a time-dependent manner [51]. In A549 human lung cancer cells, safrole activated caspases 3, 8, and 9 [57]. In rat hepatocytes cells, safrole induced cell death by loss of mitochondrial membrane potential and generation of oxygen radical species, which were assayed using 2′,7′-dichlorodihydrofluorescein diacetate (DCFH-DA) [54].

Fan and collaborators [58] showed that safrole promoted the activities of macrophages and NK cells in BALB/c mice. While promoting macrophage phagocytosis, safrole increased abundance of cell markers such as CD11b and Mac-3. Additionally, NK cell cytotoxicity was remarkably suppressed in mice treated with safrole, as were levels of cell markers for T cells (CD3) and B cells (CD19). Safrole was also cytotoxic against primary human buccal mucosal fibroblasts (BMFs) [52]. Ni and collaborators [52] demonstrated that safrole increased NF-κB expression, which may have been involved in the pathogenesis of oral submucous fibrosis. NF-κB expression induced by safrole in fibroblasts may be mediated by ERK activation and the COX-2 signal transduction pathway.

A study by Chang and collaborators [53] investigated the effect of safrole on intracellular Ca2+ mobilization and viability of human PC3 prostate cancer cells. Cytosolic free Ca2+ levels ([Ca2+]i) were measured using fura-2 as a probe. Safrole increased [Ca2+]i by causing Ca2+ release from the endoplasmic reticulum in a phospholipase C- and protein kinase C-independent manner, which decreased cell viability in a concentration-dependent manner. In HL-60 leukemia cells, safrole promoted the expression of glucose-regulated protein 78 (GRP78), growth arrest- and DNA damage-inducible gene 153 (GADD153), and activating transcription factor 6α (ATF-6α) [51]. In the unscheduled DNA synthesis (UDS) assay described by Howes and collaborators [55], safrole exhibited genotoxic activity in freshly isolated rat hepatocyte primary cultures.

Safrole-2′,3′-oxide (SAFO) is a reactive electrophilic metabolite of safrole. SAFO is the most mutagenic metabolite of safrole that has been tested in the Ames test, but data on the genotoxicity of SAFO in mammalian systems is scarce. SAFO induced cytotoxicity, DNA strand breakage, and micronuclei formation in human cells in vitro and in mice [56]. In addition, safrole produced mutagenicity in Salmonella TA 98 and TA 100 in the Ames test [59].

Myristicin (1-allyl-3,4-methylenedioxy-5-methoxybenzene) is an active constituent of nutmeg, parsley, and carrot. A study by Lee and collaborators [60] investigated the cytotoxic and apoptotic effects of myristicin on human neuroblastoma SK-N-SH cells. Apoptosis triggered by myristicin was caused by cleavage of PARP, which was accompanied by accumulation of cytochrome c and activation of caspase-3. These results suggested that myristicin induced cytotoxicity in human neuroblastoma SK-N-SH cells by an apoptotic mechanism [60].

Ahmad and collaborators [61] investigated the effect of myristicin on activity of glutathione S-transferase (GST) and NADPH:quinone oxidoreductase (QR) in four mouse strains. The authors showed that activity of GST and QR was significantly increased in the livers of all four mouse strains, GST activity was increased in the intestine of three out of four strains, and QR activity was significantly increased in the lungs and stomachs of three out of four stains. Thus myristicin, which is found in a wide variety of herbs and vegetables, shows strong potential as an effective chemoprotective agent against cancer.

Safrole, safrole-2′,3′-oxide, and myristicin are bioactive substances in antitumor models that can be used as starting materials for the preparation of derivatives with improved pharmacological profile.

2.4. Estragole, Anethole, and trans-Anethole Oxide

Estragole has been isolated from essential oils of Artemisia dracunculus and Leonotis ocymifolia. Howes and collaborators [55] demonstrated the genotoxic activity of estragole via UDS assay, in which estragole induced dose-dependent increases in UDS up to 2.7 times that of the control in rat hepatocytes in primary culture.

Anethole (1-methoxy-4-(1-propenyl)benzene) occurs naturally as a major component of essential oils from fennel and star anise and is also present in numerous plants such as dill, basil, and tarragon [62]. Anethole had a cytotoxic effect on fibrosarcoma tumor [63], breast cancer [63], hepatocytes [55, 64], cervical carcinoma [21, 23], and Ehrlich ascites tumor [65], as well as an anticarcinogenic effect and a lack of clastogenic potential [65].

Chainy and collaborators [66] reported that anethole reduced apoptosis by inhibiting induction of NF-κB, activator protein 1 (AP-1), c-jun N-terminal kinase (JNK), and mitogen-activated protein kinase kinase (MAPKK) by tumor necrosis factor (TNF). Choo and collaborators investigated the antimetastatic activity of anethole [63] and showed that anethole inhibited proliferation, adhesion, and invasion of highly metastatic human HT-1080 fibrosarcoma cells. Anethole also inhibited the activity of metalloproteinases (MMP-2 and MMP-9) and increased the activity of MMP inhibitor TIMP-1 [63]. Nakagawa and Suzuki [62] showed that anethole induced a concentration- and time-dependent loss of cell viability in isolated rat hepatocytes, which was followed by decreases in intracellular levels of ATP and total adenine nucleotide pools. Howes and collaborators [55] demonstrated that anethole did not induce unscheduled DNA synthesis (UDS) in rat hepatocytes in primary culture. In Ehrlich ascites tumor-bearing mice,anethole increased survival time and reduced tumor weight, tumor volume, and body weight [65].

Anethole is metabolized through 3 pathways: O-demethylation, ω-hydroxylation followed by side chain oxidation, and epoxidation of the 1,2-double bond. The cytotoxicity of trans-anethole oxide in rat hepatocytes has been shown to be due to its metabolism to epoxide [67]. In addition, trans-anethole oxide produced a positive result in the Salmonella mutation assay and induced tumors in mice. These results suggest that epoxidation of the side chain of anethole in vivo could be a carcinogenic metabolic mechanism. Kim and collaborators [67] found that trans-anethole oxide is more toxic to animals than trans-anethole and was mutagenic in point mutation and frameshift mutation Ames test models. trans-Anethole did not induce hepatomas in male B6C3F1 mice, but the highest dose of trans-anethole oxide tested (0.5 μmol/g) significantly increased the incidence of hepatomas.

2.5. Asaraldehyde, β-Asarone, and trans-Asarone Oxide

Acorus gramineus (Araceae), which is distributed throughout Korea, Japan, and China, has been used in Korean traditional medicine for improvement of learning and memory, sedation, and analgesia [68]. Several pharmacologically active compounds, such as β-asarone, α-asarone, and phenylpropenes, have been reported from this rhizome [69]. Park and collaborators [70] investigated asarone and asaraldehyde and showed minimal cytotoxicity (IC50 < 30 μM) in the SRB assay using 4 human tumor cell lines: A549 (non-small cell lung adenocarcinoma), SK-OV-3 (ovarian cancer cell), SK-MEL-2 (skin melanoma), and HCT15 (colon cancer cell). trans-Asarone oxide, prepared from trans-asarone and dimethyldioxirane, induced hepatomas in B6C3F1 mice and skin papillomas in CD-1 mice and was mutagenic for Salmonella strains [67].

2.6. Cinnamaldehyde, 2′-Hydroxycinnamaldehyde, and Cinnamic Acid

Cinnamaldehyde is a bioactive compound isolated from the stem bark of Cinnamomum cassia and has been widely used in folk medicine for its anticancer [71], antibacterial [72], antimutagenic [73], and immunomodulatory effects [74], as well as to remedy other diseases [75]. The cytotoxic activity of cinnamaldehyde has been confirmed in melanoma [76, 77], the colon [76, 78, 79], breast cancer [78], hepatic tumor [80, 81], leukemia [71, 82, 83], cervical carcinoma [76, 83] the lung, the ovary, the central nervous system [76], lymphoma, mouse leukemia [76, 84], mouse lung carcinoma [71], lymphocytes [74], hepatocytes [85], embryo cells [86], and larynx carcinoma [87]. Its genotoxicity has been confirmed in vitro [87]. Cinnamaldehyde also had genotoxic effects against SA7-transformed Syrian hamster embryo cells [86].

Ng and Wu [80] showed that cinnamaldehyde induced lipid peroxidation in hepatocytes isolated from male Sprague-Dawley rats with glutathione depletion. Adding NADH generators, for example, xylitol, prevented cytotoxicity induced by cinnamaldehyde, but decreasing mitochondrial NAD+ with rotenone markedly increased cinnamaldehyde cytotoxicity. The authors showed that cinnamaldehyde-induced cytotoxicity and inhibition of mitochondrial respiration were markedly increased by ALDH inhibitors and in particular by cyanamide [80].

Chew and collaborators [78] used flow cytometric analysis to show that 80 μM of cinnamaldehyde caused cell cycle arrest at the G2/M phase in HCT 116 cells and induced cleavage of caspase-3 and PARP. It has also been proposed that cinnamaldehyde induced apoptosis by ROS release with TrxR-inhibitory and Nrf2-inducing properties [78]. Ka and collaborators [71] demonstrated that cinnamaldehyde induced ROS-mediated mitochondrial permeability and cytochrome c release in human leukemia cells (HL-60).

Using hepatoma cells, Wu and collaborators [81] demonstrated that cinnamaldehyde upregulated Bax protein, downregulated Bcl-2 and Mcl-1, and caused Bid to cleave upon the activation of caspase-8. These events consequently led to cell death. JNK, p38, and ERK were activated and phosphorylated after cinnamaldehyde treatment in a time-dependent manner, which suggested that apoptosis was mediated by activation of proapoptotic Bcl-2 family (Bax and Bid) proteins and MAPK pathways [81]. Cinnamaldehyde can also activate TRPA1 expression in melanoma cells [77].

Cinnamaldehyde caused a time-dependent increase in CD95 (APO-1/CD95) protein expression in HepG2 cells (human hepatoma), while also downregulating antiapoptotic proteins (Bcl-XL) and upregulating proapoptotic (Bax) proteins in a time-dependent manner [80]. Preincubation of HepG2 cells with cinnamaldehyde effectively inhibited the expression of Bax, p53, and CD95, as well as the cleavage of PARP. This pretreatment also prevented downregulation of Bcl-XL [80]. Using the HepG2 and Hep3B human hepatoma cancer cell lines, Chuang and colleagues [88] demonstrated that cinnamaldehyde had a potent inhibitory effect against human hepatoma cell growth. They observed that the JAK2-STAT3/STAT5 pathway might be an important target of cinnamaldehyde. Cinnamaldehyde also altered apoptotic signaling. Cinnamaldehyde significantly decreased protein levels of cyclin D1 and proliferative cell nuclear antigen (PCNA) but increased the protein levels of and [86]. In an assay of thioredoxin reductase (TrxR) action, cinnamaldehyde showed a TrxR inactivation effect that could contribute to its cytotoxicity [89]. Furthermore, cinnamaldehyde had an antitumor effect in Sarcoma 180-bearing BALB/c mice and a protective effect on immune function [89].

2′-Hydroxycinnamaldehyde, a cinnamaldehyde derivative, was studied for its immunomodulatory effects. The chemopreventive effects of cinnamaldehyde derivatives were demonstrated on hepatocellular carcinoma formation in H-ras12V transgenic mice, where they probably produced a long-term immunostimulating effect on T cells, because immune cell infiltration into hepatic tissues was increased [90].

2′-Hydroxycinnamaldehyde has immunomodulatory effects in vivo, but in vitro studies showed that secreted IgM level was depressed in the culture supernatants of splenocytes. Decreased IgM produced by cinnamaldehyde treatment in vitro appeared to be due to lower levels of B-cell proliferation, rather than direct inhibition of IgM production [74]. Koh and collaborators [74] also demonstrated that cinnamaldehyde induced T-cell differentiation from CD4CD8 double positive cells to CD4 or CD8 single positive cells.

Cinnamic acid occurs throughout the plant kingdom and particularly in flavor compositions and products containing cinnamon oil [91]. Cinnamic acid inhibited proliferation of uterocervical carcinoma [92], leukemia [93], colon adenocarcinoma [79], glioblastoma, melanoma, prostate, lung carcinoma [94], osteogenic sarcoma [95] cells, Mac Coy cells [96], Hep G2 cells [97], and kidney epithelial (VERO) cells [98].

Cinnamic acid had an inhibitory effect on uterocervical carcinoma (U14) cells in mice, causing tumor cell apoptosis [92]. In vitro assay of U14 cells demonstrated a shortened G2-M period, lengthened cell cycle, and inhibited cell proliferation, which supported the conclusion that cinnamic acid influenced tumor cell cycle [92].

Ekmekcioglu and collaborators [79] showed that cinnamic acid inhibited proliferation and DNA synthesis of Caco-2 (human colon) cells. Treatment with cinnamic acid modulated the Caco-2 cell phenotype by dose-dependently stimulating sucrase and aminopeptidase N activity, while inhibiting alkaline phosphatase activity. In melanoma cells cinnamic acid induced cell differentiation with morphological changes and increased melanin production. Cinnamic acid reduced the invasive capacity of melanoma cells and modulated expression of genes implicated in tumor metastasis (collagenase type IV and tissue inhibitor metalloproteinase 2) and immunogenicity (HLA-A3, class-I major histocompatibility antigen) [94].

Using in vivo and in vitro assays, Zhang and collaborators (2010) [92] showed that cinnamic acid influenced the cell cycle of uterocervical carcinoma cells (U14); the G2-M period was shortened, cell cycle was lengthened, and cell proliferation was inhibited. Cinnamic acid also induced differentiation of human osteogenic sarcoma cells and caused a higher percentage of cells in S phase [95].

2.7. Hydroxychavicol and 1′-Acetoxychavicol Acetate

Hydroxychavicol (1-allyl-3,4-dihydroxybenzene) is a major component in Piper betle leaf, which is used for betel quid chewing in Asia, and is also a major metabolite of safrole, which is the main component of sassafras oil, in rats and humans. A study by Nakagawa and collaborators [54] demonstrated the biotransformation and cytotoxic effects of hydroxychavicol in freshly-isolated rat hepatocytes. In hepatocytes pretreated with diethyl maleate or salicylamide, hydroxychavicol-induced cytotoxicity was enhanced and was accompanied by a decrease in the formation of conjugates and inhibition of hydroxychavicol loss.

Other studies indicate that mitochondria are the target organelles for hydroxychavicol, which induces cytotoxicity through mitochondrial failure related to mitochondrial membrane potential at an early stage, and lipid peroxidation through oxidative stress at a later stage. Furthermore, the onset of cytotoxicity depends on the initial and residual concentrations of hydroxychavicol, rather than its metabolites.

1′-Acetoxychavicol acetate is obtained from the rhizomes of Languas galanga (Zingiberaceae), a traditional condiment in Thailand. Recent studies have revealed that 1′-acetoxychavicol acetate has potent chemopreventive effects against rat oral carcinomas and inhibits chemically induced tumor formation and cellular growth of cancer cells. 1′-Acetoxychavicol acetate inhibited NF-κB and induced apoptosis of myeloma cells in vitro and in vivo. Therefore, 1′-acetoxychavicol acetate is a novel NF-κB inhibitor and represents a new therapy for the treatment of multiple myeloma patients [99]. The isolation and identification of 1′-acetoxychavicol acetate, an inhibitor of xanthine oxidase, may induce antitumor activity by inhibiting generation of anions during tumor promotion [100] (Figure 1).

3. Conclusions

The studies presented in this review reveal the anticancer therapeutic potential of bioactive constituents found in essential oils and medicinal plants, the phenylpropanoids. The research on the clinical studies of these natural products is required to the development of new drug candidates with applications in the therapy of cancer.


Cell Lines
3LL:Mouse lung carcinoma
A172:Human malignant glioblastoma
A549:Lung adenocarcinoma
BMFs:Primary human buccal mucosal fibroblasts
Caco-2:Human colon adenocarcinoma
CD19:B cells
CD3:T cells
CEM:Acute T lymphoblastoid leukemia
DU-145:Androgen-insensitive prostate cancer
HCT-15:Colon tumor
HeLa:Human cervical carcinoma
Hep3B:Human hepatoma cancer
HepG2:Human hepatoma
HGF:Human gingival fibroblasts
HL-60:Human promyelocytic leukemia
HSC-3:Human oral cancer cells
HSG:Human submandibular gland carcinoma
HT-1080:Human fibrosarcoma tumor
K-562:Human chronic myelogenous leukemia
KB:Oral squamous carcinoma
L-1210:Mouse leukemia
LN-CaP:Prostate cancer
MCF-7 gem:Human breast adenocarcinoma (resistant to gemcitabine)
MCF-7:Human breast adenocarcinoma
ML-1:Human myeloblastic leukemia
NHIK 3025:Human cervical carcinoma
P388:Mouse leukemia
P-815:Murine mastocytoma
PC-3:Human prostate cancer
PLC/PRF/5:Human hepatoma
Raw 264.7:Mouse leukemic monocyte macrophage
S180:Sarcoma 180
SbCl2:Primary melanoma
SCC-4:Tongue squamous carcinoma
SK-MEL-2:Skin melanoma
SK-OV-3:Ovarian cancer
SNU-C5:Human colon cancer
U14:Uterocervical carcinoma
U251:Human malignant glioblastoma
U-937:Human histiocytic lymphoma
uPA:Urokinase plasminogen activator
WM1205Lu:Metastatic melanoma
WM3211:Primary radial growth phase melanoma
WM98-1:Primary vertical growth phase melanoma
XF-498:Central nerve system.
AFC:Antibody forming cell
ALDH:Aldehyde dehydrogenase
Ames test:Biological assay to assess the mutagenic potential of chemical compounds
Boyden-chamber assay:Evaluation of tumor cell invasion in vitro
c-AMP:Cyclic adenosine monophosphate
CAs:Chromosomal aberrations
CCK-8:Cell Counting Kit-8, a sensitive colorimetric assay
CDFHDA:5-(and -6)-carboxy-2′,7′-dichlorofluorescein diacetate
Comet assay:Single-cell gel electrophoresis
Con A:Concanavalin
DEM:Diethyl maleate
DTNB:5,5′-Dithiobis-(2-nitrobenzoic acid)
EBV:Epstein-Barr virus
EHV-1:Herpes virus 1
ESR:Electron spin resonance spectroscopy
GSSG:Oxidized glutathione
GST:Glutathione S-transferase
LDH:Lactate dehydrogenase
MMP:Matrix metalloproteinase
MTT:[3(4,5-Dimethyl-thiazol-2-yl)-2,5-diphenyl tetrazolium bromide]
NF-κB:Nuclear factor-kappa B
NRU assay:Neutral red uptake
p21WAF1:Cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitor CDKN1A
PARP:Poly(ADP-ribose) polymerase
PBS:Phosphate-buffered saline
PCR:Polymerase chain reaction
PMA:Phorbol 12-myristate-13-acetate plus ionomycin
QR:Quinone oxidoreductase
SRB:Sulforhodamine B
SRBC:Sheep red blood cells
TBA:Test in the aqueous phase
TBARS:Thiobarbituric acid reactive substances
TUNEL:Terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase-mediated dUTP nick end-labeling
UDS assay:Unscheduled DNA synthesis
V-FITC assay:Apoptosis detection kit
WST:Tetrazolium salt

Conflict of Interests

The authors declare no conflict of interests.


This research was supported by Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (CNPq) and Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior (CAPES).


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